Drilling leases slowed by paper jam

 

At a Denver gas industry conference Aug. 3, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Rebecca Watson said a "staggering" increase in protests is hobbling gas drilling in the Rocky Mountains.

Pre-lease protests — attempts to stop the Bureau of Land Management from auctioning off parcels of land to oil and gas companies — are up 664 percent over the last four years, she said. Appeals of leases that have already been sold rose 253 percent during that period. Watson assured industry representatives that her department is making changes to create a "business-aware environment," including shortening the pre-lease protest period by 15 days (HCN, 5/2/05: Oil and gas opponents will have to move faster).

But environmentalists say Watson is ignoring facts and pandering to gas companies. Protests have gone up, says Peter Morton of The Wilderness Society, because drilling permits have gone up: They’ve more than doubled from 2000 to 2004 (HCN, 8/8/05: Industry embeds its own in the BLM). Morton says it’s not just greens that are protesting: Ranchers, anglers, hunters — even the governor of Wyoming — have filed protests against gas drilling.

Industry itself may be partly responsible for the slowdown. Watson noted that at the Buffalo, Wyo., field office, the nation’s busiest, applications took 117 days on average to approve. Watson acknowledged, however, that 86 of those days were due to industry application "deficiencies," such as incomplete forms; the actual processing took only 31 days.

The increased workloads at BLM offices have hindered the agency’s ability to fulfill its other responsibilities, according to the Government Accountability Office. The office, an arm of Congress, issued a report in June chiding BLM for its lax approach to environmental protection. The problem? Staff time is being sucked up by ever-mounting paperwork for drilling permits.